Monthly Archives: April 2011


When I was young, my family vacationed at a house in Wimberly, Texas with a malfunctioning refrigerator. It kept food cold, but a wiring issue created a short circuit and anyone who touched its handle received a mild shock. We must have thought it strange to find a single tennis shoe parked in front of the fridge, but we learned quickly. If you pirouetted on that shoe as you opened the door, you were fine.

This story may be meaningless to anyone but me and my brothers and sisters, but it has stuck with me as a metaphor. I’m always searching for that shoe.

Every Sunday I anticipate another work week with mild dread. After the conditioning of seventeen years as a student and almost twice that as a teacher, I’m looking for a way to rehabilitate Sunday. Nice weather, plans with my wife and kids, working ahead to clear space for reading, painting, or writing—none of it ever saves me entirely. I gird my loins in preparation for the now too familiar shock.

Life works that way. You won’t welcome every task, and, for me, the necessary and repetitive tasks require the most acute resolve. Waking on Sunday means accepting another set of ungraded papers and another rereading and another report, college recommendation, or plan. But acceptance isn’t exactly that shoe.

Some people are better with mild shocks. Their bodies channel electricity organically. Some seem to enjoy the stimulation. I worry—how many more shocks I can stand?

Often, I fantasize about the day they’ll stop and picture myself in a cardigan doing the crossword. I have time for talk, new books, and watching tidal light flood the living room. The dishes are done, the house orderly, every list empty.

My friends must be sick of hearing me say I’m tired. When I complain, they tell me, rightly, complaining doesn’t help and I’d miss the productive feeling of having work before me. I’d love to convince myself a jolt is something I can relish, but, so far, no shoe.

I wonder sometimes if it’s me, and not the fridge, that’s broken. I want to pirouette again. I spread the shocks out, eat only when I’m really, really hungry, and practice amnesia to help forget the last touch of Sunday. Still… the moment arrives.

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Filed under Aging, Anxiety, Doubt, Essays, Home Life, Identity, Laments, life, Modern Life, Prose Poems, Resolutions, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Work, Worry

Getting in Line

I have a philosophical question: when does the line to Starbucks begin?

Teaching at a city school means students can leave the building during the day, and often we leave at the same time. If I suspect they’re headed where I am—the Starbucks across the street and down the block—is it rude to pass them well before we arrive?

The line to Starbucks isn’t physical. It’s a perception—an imaginary point where the civility of lining up takes effect. And it’s conceptual—a question of what a line IS anyway and why it matters where it is or whether it is.

And that line can also be philosophical. Are all lines human inventions? Is there a neo-platonic notion of linedness…or am I just being foolish?

In high school and college I worked in a movie theatre. Because ribbon mazes weren’t in widespread use then, I couldn’t rely on customers to wait for the next server. Every shift, a few people missed seeing a line or walked past it to stand expectantly at the counter. In that situation, I decided who was next, weighing the claims on my attention. “First-come First-served” usually worked, but, as my focus centered on the person right in front of me, I didn’t always notice the last person in line when a new person walked up. And, okay, part of me always wanted to penalize the line-breaker. Occasionally I left someone so long they departed with a huff.

To be fair, the lines weren’t always easy to identify but, once people witnessed the success of bellying up to the counter, any notion of “a line” disappeared entirely. I hated that.

I believe in lines and am sometimes miffed when a car swerves onto the shoulder to skirt patiently waiting vehicles. I politely alert other customers to lines and am suitably appalled when I’m ignored. I let ties to the line-up point go to the other person, believing myself the soul of courtesy.

Yet, I also join my family already in line and might let a friend in too, if one suddenly appeared. Sometimes, when the highway narrows, I zip down the disappearing lane telling myself all the other drivers are silly not to take advantage of it while it’s there. I think, someone will let me in.

I can always come up with a reason the law of taking turns doesn’t apply to moi.

On my Starbucks trips, the minute I emerge from the school with a student in front of me, the internal war begins. Do I slow down—and, really, do they have to be so pokey—or do I speed up—and, really, do I have to be so competitive, in such a big hurry?

Lines aren’t created by ribbons. They are created by the people in line, those who’ve made a tacit agreement that, though cuing up will slow them down, turns are still the best way. They are an exercise in temporarily putting others before ourselves.

But I also wonder. In the absence of those ribbons mazes, are all bets off? If lines are emblems of self-restraint, are they as suspect as other rosy visions of human nature?

I’ve taught absolutism and the Enlightenment, and, in the battle between Hobbes and Locke, Locke takes a beating. While some students find Locke’s social compact inspiring, others suspect he’s fooling himself when he says we’ll give up some individual liberty in trust to leaders who live to serve us. Hobbes, they say, sees people straight—humans only care about getting theirs. Students who are also taking biology tell me social biologists agree. It’s only in us to survive. We live to reproduce, and any more complicated motive ultimately comes back to that. Collective behavior lasts as long as it agrees with that all-consuming drive.

Well, if scientists say it, I’m a fool to disagree, but I’d rather Locke was right. In any case, in the absence of absolute, irrefutable proof, I’d rather live as if Locke were right. Though ignoring my own Hobbesian brutishness seems perilous, I can’t give up trying.

Some people are never in line. They explain shortcuts and “expediencies” by saying no one stopped them, and until you’re made to do something, you can do what you want. Maybe, but I don’t want to live in a world where not getting a turn is your own fault.

I accept my Hobbesian lapses, but I don’t want aggression to rule. I guess I’ll have to be in the line to Starbucks…always.

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Dressing: An Essay in Segments

The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible. What the second duty is no one has yet discovered.

—Oscar Wilde, Phrases and Philosophies for the use of the Young


Just outside the doors into work, I steel myself for playing me. If the day is light on classes and commitments, I might be wearing jeans, a collarless shirt, no belt. But if I expect to meet parents, administrators, scary colleagues, or visitors from another school, I put on slacks, a dress shirt, my shiny shoes, and maybe a tie and jacket. The school declares some “Dress-up days,” and those require full armor—a suit, complete with my better black leather belt and even shinier shoes.

I try to costume myself appropriately. These clothes should cover a single personality, but, if I’m honest, I notice a difference arising from changing the way I dress. The same face, the same speech, the same posture, the same gestures, the same approaches honed by years standing or sitting in classes and, still, a difference. I am a version of a version appearing in another episode. The series can’t be cancelled, and, while I sometimes forget I’m acting for a moment, something in me knows.


Method acting assumes people can slip from self-consciousness. Exercising the appropriate will, an actor can stop behaving like him or herself and be someone else. The best performance excavates deep humanity and forms a new person from all that common human clay. You are that person elementally. You are a golem fashioned of basic stuff particular to no one particularly—sense memory, breath, movement and life, a true new human self.

Though some people link method acting and the Russian actor and director Constantin Stanislavski, he urged actors to find roles in dress and movement as well as psychology. Some inspiration for Stanislavski’s approach must have come from his own experience. He originally changed his name to separate his acting life from the rest of his life and avoid shaming his upper-crust family. For someone of Stanislavski’s social station, acting was slumming, and he dabbled like a hobbyist for years before becoming professional in his mid-thirties. For Stanislavski, “living a part” required disguise. A drunk, a gypsy, or a vagrant needed proper clothes, and he dressed carefully before venturing to the train station, as he sometimes did, to pretend to be someone else.

According to Stanislavski, being in character means covering who you really are. It requires hard work and discipline—study, not liberation, and training, not magic.

I don’t know Stanislaski’s writing well enough to address its implications—perhaps I misunderstand him altogether—but I wonder what he thought a self is, whether it might be costume all the way in.


I suffer from hyperhidrosis, overactive sweat glands. It sounds comic, but it’s real. My case is not so bad—I don’t have sweaty hands, feet, back, crotch, or chest as some sufferers do—but dark circles form under my arms every workday. Though I only learned the name for my condition recently, I’ve had it since my teens.

You might think that would give me time to get used to it, but you can’t get used to it. Maybe someone else could live with people noticing (and noticing their noticing), but still it’s uncomfortable to wear a wet shirt all day. I feel so uncomfortable I’ve often wished it were socially acceptable to wear Pampers under my arms.

Stress triggers my hyperhydrosis. My hyperhydrosis triggers stress. It’s a perfectly malignant cycle. Sometimes I try to will it away and tell my body to stop sweating, but I can’t pretend past my problem. By ten, I’m soaked, and those circles say my calm is an act. My bodily malfunction announces trouble even if I’m fine, thus self-consciousness never leaves me. I’m not fine.

By eleven, I can’t wait go home to change or find somewhere I can lift my arms without worry and dry out. Even more than that, I want to stop pretending.


Thoreau warns against enterprises that require new clothes, and generally I follow his advice. The periodic trip to my favorite bargain department store creates that familiar question, “Is this something I wear?” I prefer a confident “Yes” and quick escape, but sometimes a second voice nags that being me should include taking chances, exploring, keeping up. I should try to seem fashionable.

When I was younger, I could be many me’s, dress one way on the weekends and another during the week, one way with some friends and another with others, one way for one type of event and another for another. I still make distinctions, but my choices are subtle. I’m so used to dressing like me that only I notice.


Once my brother and I argued over whether someone could be a studied eccentric. He said no because, if “eccentric” meant “unconventional, deviating from customary or usual practice” then the deliberate effort to be eccentric rendered a person anti-conventional, anti-customary, and anti-usual and therefore entirely in the thrall of those attributes. Trying to be eccentric was only switching polarities. The true eccentric, he said, couldn’t help it.

My argument was simpler—when are we not trying?


For years, I’ve been searching for an essay someone told me about. The author, an honors English teacher, kept asking his principal to reassign him to the remedial class and, each time, the principal denied the request saying, “You won’t like it.” Finally, exhausted by the teacher’s persistent request, the principal answered, “Okay, if you insist… but you won’t like it.”

And the experience was just what the principal promised, a disaster. The class couldn’t read anything worth studying and quickly became mired in whether they had pencils, where their books were, whether they could stay awake. The students did little more than tolerate the teacher, gazing at him as they might gaze at his desk.

The teacher began to see himself differently. He had thought his stature matched his skill. He believed he taught exceptional students because he was himself exceptional and discovered instead that he was incompetent, capable of teaching only those who desperately wanted to learn and did most of the work themselves.

However, he was a proud man, and, realizing the principal would soon observe and evaluate his class, he decided to instruct them to discuss Romeo and Juliet from a script. He taught them to raise their hands to established questions in an orchestrated sequence. He kept prop books and spirals on hand. He assigned insightful remarks to each student and rehearsed reading from the text. This performance soon became their main business, and they slowly gained the skill to enact this perfect class.

When evaluation day arrived, the students played their roles brilliantly, without an awkward or suspicious instant. The principal left awed by the magical transformation he’d witnessed. He shook the teacher’s hand too long and too hard. He promised a special citation in the teacher’s personnel file.

You might guess what happened next. When the principal was a sufficient distance down the hall, the class broke into cheers, congratulating the teacher and one another, full of themselves and experiencing a flood of unfamiliar accomplishment. For the first time that year, the teacher felt a success.


If someone out there knows this essay, please send me the author and title. I probably have all the details wrong. The story tunneled into me, and I’m beginning to wonder if I invented it.


Personality is performance, I’m sure of it.

Yet, I’m just as sure my believing so makes me hard to reach, hard to hold, hard to love. I know people who are much more “available,” more spontaneous and unstudied and embraceable. People hug me with trepidation… and not just because my shirt is wet.

I’m not socially awkward. I don’t have a flat affect. I’m not un-charismatic. And, occasionally, people even tell me I’m impressive. Yet, if every person were a day’s weather, my more available friends would be an invitation to sunbathe by the water, and I would be a hard-blue-skied afternoon with a temperature in the low 60’s—nice, agreeable on the street’s sunny side, but not quite warm enough to slow your step or disrobe.


In theatre an actor “breaks the fourth wall” when he or she speaks to the audience and calls attention to a play as artifice. Those moments can be tricky. What does it mean to pretend not to pretend, and what happens to empathy when you admit you’re acting? These moments create discomfort. They send an audience down a what-is-what rabbit hole.

In Shakespeare’s 1 Henry IV, Sir John Falstaff feigns death to avoid a particularly savage attacker. When he rises later, he defends himself by saying he’s no different from others who have done the same. Because it’s Shakespeare and we have no stage directions, we can’t say for sure, but some scholars speculate Falstaff waves his hand during this speech to take in characters killed in the preceding battle scene. Each is really an actor playing dead as part of the performance. The moment is perfect for Falstaff. His licentiousness knows no bounds. No behavior is forbidden him, and he is just the sort to spoil the play to save himself.

I envy Falstaff. What would happen if I stood up and said, “I am an actor”?  What if I confessed unapologetically that I’m not sure what’s under the disguise or whether a real me is there at all?  I have the costumes, the props, the play—what else do I have?

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Filed under Anxiety, Doubt, Essays, Experiments, High School Teaching, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Modern Life, Shakespeare, Sturm und Drang, Teaching, Thoreau, Thoughts, Work, Worry

Known For Second

Watch ESPN and you’ll see endless arguing about sports heroes, past and present—who is the greatest, the most decorated, the most proficient, the most dominant. I like having those arguments too.

But if distance runners know only one story about athletes in their sport, I’d like it to be the story of a runner who was famous for being second.

I learned about Alain Mimoun from a segment of a documentary about the Olympics by Bud Greenspan. The story focuses on the French Algerian’s ill-fortune. In Olympic and European championship races in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters in the mid fifties, Mimoun finished second to the greatest runner of the age, Emile Zatopek, five times.

Everyone has heard of Zatopek. Well, no, not really—but more people have heard of Zatopek than Mimoun. Zatopek was a Czech who owned the track for almost ten years, setting world records and proving unbeatable in big races. In contrast, Mimoun was “Zatopek’s shadow,” a short and swarthy foil to the Czech’s golden, blue-eyed visage.

Yet, though I admire Zatopek, I admire Mimoun just as much.

Greenspan’s documentary highlights Mimoun’s warm feelings for Emile. Mimoun tells stories about their being friends off the track and how Zatopek once introduced him to “a nice Czech girl.” But the most astounding element of the interview is Mimoun’s grace and generosity toward someone he must have seen as better. Even losing to Zatopek the fifth time, Mimoun says, “I was not angry because I believe in fate, and I said, if I do not win, that is my destiny.”

In his last Olympics, at Melbourne in 1956 when Mimoun was 35, he didn’t even do as well as second place. He finished 11th in the 10,000 meters. It seemed his career would end without a gold. However, Zatopek encouraged his friend to enter the marathon, a distance Mimoun had never attempted. Zatopek was already registered for the race, but Mimoun had to beg his team’s coach. The coach agreed but thought it silly. The press wrote Mimoun off as too old.

The day was very hot, Mimoun was wearing number 13, and that morning, back in Algeria, Mimoun’s daughter had been born. He took these developments as signs. When he stepped to the line, he must have realized he was running out of chances, and from the early stages of the race, he pushed to the front of the pack. Accustomed to the heat from training in Africa, Mimoun skipped water stations and soon built a formidable lead. Nonethess, with Zatopek in the race, Mimoun entered Olympic stadium looking around. He peered back and saw…no one. He won. Zatopek was sixth.

As many times as I’ve seen this film, my eyes still well when Mimoun breaks the tape. The narrator translates Mimoun’s excited French, “I was always second. Now I was no longer the shadow. I was the sun.” Yet Mimoun’s victory—his being at last better than Zatopek—is not the only moving aspect of the story. I don’t even see his triumph as the most moving aspect. Mimoun won plenty of races. He was the international cross country champion four times and second twice more. Though his marathon victory is a fantasy ending, his story isn’t about who’s better. The people inside the athletes—the friends Mimoun and Zatopek—move me, not who performed better on which day.

After he won the race, Mimoun remained in Olympic stadium to cheer Zatopek across the line and then approached him to share his victory. In the film, Mimoun mimes how Zatopek lifted his exhausted form from the infield, kissed him on both cheeks, stood at attention, and saluted. “I am happy for you my friend,” Zatopek said.

“For me,” Mimoun tells the camera, “This is worth all the gold in the world. Without Zatopek, it would have meant nothing. With him, magnificent.”

I am in awe of the skills of current atheletes. However, I can’t help thinking about Mimoun. Sometimes our interest in who is the greatest seems misplaced… unless you shift the meaning of “greatest” to include glory that transcends winning.


Filed under Alan Mimoun, Education, Essays, Genius, Gratitude, High School Teaching, life, Modern Life, Nostalgia, Running, Thoughts, Tributes

Ars Longa Vita Brevis

Twenty years ago this summer I went to Vermont for the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. I heard some literary luminaries speak and read—Philip Levine, Francine Prose, William Matthews, John Irving, Nancy Willard, and many others. The setting was beautiful, and I made good friends there. I enjoyed just about every lecture and reading despite the hard benches and forced silence. I was thrilled to listen to authors whose work I’d taught. Tim O’Brien, fresh off the success of The Things They Carried, led my workshop.

But, for all that, the moment I recall best is a low point in my writing life.

I understand Bread Loaf is very different now, but, oddly, I did no writing when I attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. The “Writers’” in the name of the conference weren’t me. They were stars I saw eating lunch or standing in a circle of fans between talks. I said seven actual sentences to Tim O’Brien. He signed my book. The only you-time was the half-hour participants spent with writers assigned the task of reading their work, and every late afternoon I sat in those famous Adirondack chairs anticipating the thirty minutes a writer would look at me and not the other way around.

I was writing short stories then, just starting my second writing career having given up creative writing since college. I’d written poetry before but decided I needed to hitch my out-sized aspirations to something more likely to make a living.

The trouble was, I was terrible.

I have a habit of taking myself too seriously, adopting avocations with secret assurance I’ll instantly become great. Soon, I’m laboring at an impossible pace and speaking without self-consciousness about my “process” and “work.”

The summer of ’91 I was especially frenetic because my wife was pregnant, and I was running out of time to take my rightful place in Literature. For six months I produced story after story I was sure were equal to anything I taught. Tragically, I couldn’t see the difference. My readers were my wife, my boss, and another beginner, a colleague’s wife—no one predisposed to criticize an amateur. Had I been more honest with myself, however, I might have heard their saying, “Make it simpler “ as “Make it less pretentious.” I wanted to believe I’d be famous.

I try to be the pessimistic realist who lowers his expectations when he sees his anticipation can’t be met, but the day of my appointed conversation, I didn’t. I walked in to find my reader most of the way through my story and frowning.

There must have been a polite greeting I can’t recall. She complained I’d given her too much to read, meeting the page limit by changing the margins and spacing and reducing the font by one point.

“Even if it had been the proper length though,” she said, “I couldn’t have finished it.”

The catalog of basic errors took most of our time—my language was imprecise and stale, my characters were flat, my plot was cumbersome and unlikely, the story was nothing I could know anything about, and my resolution was derivative and insincere. Along the way, she paused to ask, “You see that, right?” and each criticism twisted her voice a little higher. By the time she reached the story as a whole, she was shrill, half laughing. “You know what it reminds me of?” she said, “pornography written by a young adult author.”

That’s when my eyes flooded. I did see how very bad the story was. Her criticism cooled my work, made it someone else’s, an ugly object. But I wasn’t crying about that. I thought about the years I’d lost. On the brink of being a father, I figured my chance had passed.

I said so, and she looked at me indulgently. Only the accomplished can deliver the perhaps-this-is-not-for-you-speech with such conviction and impact. You can’t even hate them.

Those stories are upstairs somewhere. I still move them from house to house but don’t read them. When I returned to poetry a few years later, I put aside greatness. Accepted into a low-residency MFA program at Bennington a few years after that, I left every expectation behind, determined simply to get better.  I’m still at it.

But my third semester at Bennington, my appointed reader joined the faculty, and I remember my heart sliding a little seeing her across the cafeteria. A classmate said I should introduce myself and tell my story, show her she hadn’t crushed me after all thank-you-very-much, but I didn’t want to.

Low moments groan in memory like ship horns in fog. They shake you without being seen and, though their warning can seem distant, they still speak to you particularly. You can’t always know what course changes these encounters create, but the course continues. And maybe you’re moving in a better direction. No circling fans, not a writer the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference refers to, maybe somewhere better, locked in another pursuit.

In any case, when I passed my appointed reader on Bennington sidewalks or stairways, in gatherings or lectures, she didn’t know me.

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The Unhappy Spaceman

anouilh2.jpg My brother drew a flip-book cartoon in the margin of Edith Hamilton’s paperback Mythology. The rocket suddenly appeared in the lower right-hand corner about page 40, rose quickly above three trailing lines of thrust, divided into stages, then—near the top of the page—spit a tiny triangular capsule that began to tumble, quickly. A paddle appeared, which was really a parachute it turns out, and the capsule drifted left and right to a gentle landing.

A stick man much bigger than his spacecraft emerged and waved just before being run down by an ambulance. “Ouch” flashed and dissipated over his flat form.

I’m sure my ninth grade English teacher, Mr. Lockwood, wondered why I rifled through that book so incessantly as he talked. He couldn’t have thought I was reading and must have questioned if I was even listening. I heard the stories, sort of, but every book we studied was another version of that rocket journey: some tale of soaring promise that ended in muted misery or death.

If my thinking were more nimble, I might have thought my brother Zeus or one of his cronies, toying with the little astronaut, knowing just when to squash him—when he was closest to success. As far as I could tell, just like my brother’s spaceman, no character ever emerged unscathed from a book; few ambitions went unpunished.

In my ninth grade class, they are just finishing their study of Macbeth, and some of them probably feel the way I did then. I am always answering the question, “Why is everything we read so depressing?”

Sometimes I say the last thing on happy people’s mind is writing—which may be true but isn’t the real answer. The real answer is that we don’t take happy people seriously. They are too damn giddy to be believed. A happy person is liable to say anything and has very little motive to speak the truth. They have too much invested in everything staying right with the world, and they smile much too much.

A depressed person, a person like Macbeth who is screwed well past the sticking point, is a person you can trust. What, is he going to lie once they have him “tied to the stake” where he can only “bearlike…fight the course”? That sort of extremity extracts the truth from characters. Up until then, they speak in hope of future advantage or out of desperation to make sense of chaos.

Earlier in the play, Lady Macbeth tells her husband to “Look like th’ innocent flower, / But be the serpent under ‘t.” She doubts he can do so, and Macbeth can’t do it well, but it is not until the end of the play he decides to give up the attempt and be himself, whatever it is. Before then, I sometimes wonder which is the act, the flower or the serpent. Up until the concluding page, each role seems equally forced. He’s a terrible flower, and the order he tries to impose on the world by making “the very firstlings of my heart…the firstlings of my hand”—his attempt to “crown his thoughts with acts”—isn’t any more natural. Besides being cruel and barbaric, Macbeth’s behavior is experimental, an attempt to do something to combat the agony he’s created for himself by killing Duncan.

I’d never say it to my class, but I think I like the Macbeth at the end of the play better than the one at the beginning. He was a brute at the start and a brute at the end, but in his resignation to try the last prophecy and fight Macduff, he gives up on attempting to control everything and just be. And he knows what he’s doing. He is no longer ignorant.

In his version of Antigone, Jean Anouilh has the Chorus say,

In a tragedy, nothing is in doubt and everyone’s destiny is known. That makes for tranquility…There isn’t any hope. You’re trapped. The whole sky has fallen on you, and all you can do about it is to shout. Don’t mistake me: I said “shout”: I did not say groan, whimper, complain. That you cannot do. But you can shout aloud; you can get all things said that you never thought you’d be able to say—or even knew you had it in you to say. And you don’t say these things because it will do any good to say them: you know better than that. You say them for their own sake.

Anouihl’s vision doesn’t go over so well with freshmen, and it shouldn’t. I love their hope and their happiness. In Mr. Lockwood’s ninth grade English class, however, I hadn’t discovered the sort of wisdom that transcends feeling. When Macbeth stops being a king and becomes a human—when my brother’s spaceman becomes a human—they are ready to speak. Then it is no longer a matter of being happy or depressing, just telling the truths they know.

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The Balance Sheet

This week at school I received a reminder that sabbatical applications are due soon. I’m not eligible because I haven’t been working at my school long enough, so this message meant nothing to me practically. Even if I met the criteria, the committee would prefer someone who taught the bulk of his or her career at the school, not elsewhere as I have.

Still, the thought of a sabbatical set my ire going.  Next year will be my 30th year in classrooms, and I could use a break about now.

The word “sabbatical” derives from the Hebrew “shabbat” just as “sabbath” does, the day of rest. Literally, it means “ceasing.” At colleges, the option for a sabbatical once appeared every six years of a professor’s tenure, and the origin of that idea may come from Leviticus, which commands farmers to let fields rest after six years of cultivation. They need a fallow year to be fruitful. Maybe minds do too. And maybe not just in education.

In this hyper-busy, hyper-go-get’em age however, sabbatical recipients must come up with proposals and plans for using the time. These plans often involve travel, research, partnership with another school, or the completion of a long-standing task like writing a book. In other words, they aren’t time off, just a different sort of labor.

I haven’t looked at the sabbatical application for my school, but it must prompt teachers to express why they want one. I wonder what would happen if someone answered as I’m tempted to: “I’d like a sabbatical to reacquaint myself with indolence.”  That response might be more perverse than sincere—I’m not sure I’m capable of indolence—but it does get at a truth few people seem willing to acknowledge in education and in business. Sometimes you need to rest, occasionally you need to review what rest is and how productive it can be.

Yet, in this case, people who want rest must convince a committee of their ambition. It is not okay to slow down, to reflect, or to allow spent batteries to recharge.

I see why schools can’t honor requests to take a year off with pay—fallow employees still cost, how do you decide who deserves it, and shouldn’t schools want something for their money? And what about those summers teachers get every year—shouldn’t that be enough?  Nonetheless, “working breaks”—which become pervasive as technology makes it possible to work all the time—seem institutionally selfish. Schools don’t dare risk hard feelings by singling out those whose years of hard work merit relief.  Instead they look for ways to squeeze more work from their most deserving teachers.

More is the rule in our world—the reward for hard work is more work.

The issue of a working sabbatical is a microcosm for how we treat people in an age dominated by corporate culture. Why is it so hard for institutions to build regular and restorative rest into working lives? Increased productivity isn’t as simple as adding labor. When do additional hours actually diminish efficiency, deaden spirit, and encourage lassitude? We regard downtime as a cost, but isn’t a rested human being more productive, creative, and profitable?

But that’s taking the economic angle and ignoring decency. If you love what you do, you do it with love. Do institutions, not just institutions of higher learning but corporations, owe something to the people who give them more than labor, who aren’t doing it solely for money?  When personal sacrifice ends in a termination meeting where you’re told “It’s just money,” the violation of the golden rule seems especially harsh. In my experience, work is seldom just money.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I approve of sabbaticals and will be happy for whatever colleague receives it. He or she will regard the time off as a break from the usual grind, and that’s great. The attached strings bother me.

When did gratitude become an item in the cost column?

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William Carlos Williams: Things About Things

wcw-1-sized.jpg Like most famous phrases, William Carlos Williams’ admonition, “No ideas but in things” suffers from its simplicity.

It’s easy to imagine Dr. Williams answering endless hands in a press conference—what “things” particularly, what he meant by “ideas,” whether it was the act of describing or the things described that produced meaning—until he charges from the room sorry he’d said anything at all.

Or maybe Williams was being sly, knowing we’d plow through things to get at ideas, applying new ideas of our own along the way.

My first exposure to Williams came when my freshman composition teacher in college assigned a 500-word essay on “The Red Wheelbarrow,” which I’ve now memorized:

So much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

500 is a small to me now. I’ve heard enough about the poem to sneeze 500 words, but when I tell my current students about the assignment they have the same reaction I did—two pages on THAT?

When I teach “The Red Wheelbarrow” to a class, I can tease out the structural regularities of this seemingly simple poem—its organization as one sentence, the consistent word count for each stanza (3-1), the syllabic structure (4-2, 3-2, 3-2, 4-2), the enjambment of every stanza, and the regular iambic meter (unstressed, stressed) that flickers in and out as the poem proceeds. Somebody is in control. The poem isn’t accidental or sloppy.

They uncover patterns and violations of patterns readily enough, but those discoveries don’t make this poem art. The things—in this case, the red wheelbarrow and its peripherals—are so mundane. Technical control, by itself, won’t overcome skepticism. It is a poem, a few members of the class will admit, but it’s a poem about nothing.

When I point out Williams didn’t think so—that, in fact, the only lines about meaning, “So much depends / upon,” suggest otherwise—they reluctantly search for why these things could be so critical.

Williams might have laughed at our technical analysis. He claimed in a radio interview that he wrote the poem “unconsciously” and thought about its meaning only later. His only technical impulse, he contended, was to put sensation in a “clean” form a reader could readily absorb.

In answer to “So much depends / upon,” the class finds basics: red, clear, and white…or a tool, weather, and a food source. For a farmer, some surmise, tools, precipitation, and livestock are important. Or all these visual things—the wheelbarrow is still, the rain has already fallen, the chickens are uncharacteristically silent—emphasize sight as the primary sense. Still, for many students, these are desperate readings, trying to create sense. These “interpretations” reinforce their vision of Williams as a con man, goofing on us by asking us to make something of nothing.

Quite rightly, a member of my class always points out that we supplied the farmer, not Williams, and that, while the poem is all sight, he actually says nothing to help us know whether that’s important. We decide it is. So much depends upon us, not the objects of the poem, the poem, or the poet. Williams has it backwards.

Yet, oddly, it’s my students’ objections that convince me of Williams’ genius and the genius of “No ideas but in things.” He—with the slightest help from me—makes them seekers. Those few and simple and defiant things give rise to a host of ideas, speculations, and heady sense-making. I wonder if, without that red wet wheelbarrow and those virginal silent chickens, they would exercise their eyes and brains so vigorously. Something more complicated and less goofy might not provoke them so.

If students respect the poem—and I’d guess converts run about 37%—they start to see it as a still life not ultimately about things but how things and ideas are inexorably linked.

“The theory is,” William Carlos Williams said in an interview, “that you can make a poem out of anything…you don’t have to have conventionally poetic material. Anything that is felt, and is felt deeply, or deeply enough, or even just gives amusement is material for art.”

Robert Coles says Williams, “Insists on the particular, the concrete, the palpable, that which is there…shunning the blandishments of an abstract kind of mind that is all too proud of itself and all too unwilling to keep itself connected to and rooted in life’s everydayness.”

Yes and no. Williams begins in particularity—in things—but his amusing little pictures, even when they seem aloof and unemotional, lead naturally to big ideas. Poetry is typically lyrical (centered in language and ideas) or narrative (centered in story), and much of Williams’ work seems to fit in the lyrical camp. However, often the narrative in Williams’ poems is the moment of perception. The poems coerce readers to reexamine common things and the way we look at them in the first place.

Mystery calls stories forth.

Critics sometimes call William Carlos Williams’ poetry “revolutionary,” but I can’t speak to the wider influence of his approach. I can attest, however, to the liberating effect he has on me. If something makes the world new, it can be poetry. Any subject—even chickens and a wheelbarrow—can remind us we’re alive.


Filed under Art, Education, Essays, Genius, High School Teaching, life, Meditations, Poetry, Reading, Teaching, Tributes, William Carlos Williams, Writing

Do As You Should

I’m impressed by students’ chutzpah when they send me emails without capitalization or punctuation, but I don’t get bent out of shape. They’re only following conventions.

As a grammarian, I’m a descriptivist instead of a prescriptivist. That is, I’d rather my students know what a specific context might expect of them than demand how they structure language in all contexts. Their knowing gerunds require possessives is only important to me because some future employer may see it as a sign of a thorough education. When a person makes pronouns agree, he or she communicates a specific background, a standard not applicable everywhere.

When a person imposes a standard on others, however, the effect is different. Occasionally people catch me in grammar errors and interrupt our conversation to crow over my mistake. Sometimes, if I say I feel bad about something—the correct usage because my sense of touch is intact—they reply “I feel badly too” to correct me… incorrectly. Couples will ask me to rule on the usage of their partner. “Tell why that’s wrong,” a husband or wife says, instructing me to wag my finger in an English teacherly way.

My reaction is a shrug. Language is fluid. Usage has always and will always change. Thankfully, we are creative and resourceful beings.

For grammatical sticklers, what’s correct is often not the issue. All of the situations above hint at self-congratulation, rectitude as a hedge against personal insecurity. I teach grammar to protect students from those who would judge them, those who use judgment to feel better about themselves.

I’d rather describe questions and issues surrounding writing than give prescriptive guidelines. This point of view rubs some colleagues the wrong way—it sometimes frustrates students as well—and I respect that some composition teachers try to help students by supplying concrete and manageable rules. Believe me, I see how happy a checklist makes students.

However, I keep coming back to my own teachers, the ones who lied to me. Because students often create fragments when they start sentences with “because,” my fourth grade teacher told me a sentence couldn’t start with the word. A sixth grade teacher told me I couldn’t use contractions in writing. And an eighth grade teacher said, “No beginning a sentence with ‘and.’” “First person is positively out,” my senior English teacher said, “and that includes ‘my.”

These teachers may have felt I wasn’t ready for the truth. Perhaps they wanted me to master writing their way before moving on to more advanced techniques. Maybe they were looking for standards to make grading easier.

Fine, but writing isn’t easy. If every essay had exactly the same rules, the same emblems of effectiveness, the same size, form, and purpose, essays would be easy, but they might also be predictable, stiff, and dull. I don’t need to read another expertly written and spiritless five-paragraph critical essay. I’ve read enough.

From a teacher’s standpoint, explaining when “I” is appropriate may be inefficient. Experience tells me giving students the chance to practice using first person can be frustrating—they often use “I feel” and “I think” and “I believe” lazily. Decisions are central to writing, however. I’d rather students practice deciding than practice following rules that, it turns out, may not be rules at all.

No one likes hearing excellence is a moving target, but part of excellence is discovering what’s effective here and now, in this situation. I tell students their next English teacher will have different expectations. Students learn a great deal from responding to the writing “rules” each teacher gives them. Every student, however, is ultimately responsible for his or her own rules.

While I’d like to help, making composition easier may not help at all. Unfortunately much of what we call “correct” is visible only in retrospect and easier to describe than prescribe.

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